Eun Sol Kim
Professor Hwang In HyeEast Asian International Relations (ISM3503-01)
12 June 2018
Inter-Korean Summit and the North Korea–United States Summit in Liberalist Perspective
In this paper, I argue that the main factor that led North Korea to participate in the inter-Korean summit and the talk with the United States is its strive for economic development and interdependence. Kim Jong Un has continuously claimed to achieve economic growth in numerous public speeches and made fundamental changes in policies. However, the enforcement of United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea are starting to bite their economy. They are facing strict limitations in their trade and are running out of raw materials for factories to run and for people to survive. With the success that North Korea believes to have achieved with its nuclear powers, Kim Jong Un is willing to bargain away nuclear arsenal for economic aid, mainly to relief the international sanctions and develop North Korea’s economy as to ensure long-term survival. Long-term survival cannot be ensured just without economic development and so, it has brought them to the point to cooperate with other nations and attain peace. Therefore, North Korea aims to have the sanctions weakened or dropped so that they could economically develop through interdependence.
I will begin with the literature review, elaborating on why liberalist perspective best fits with Kim’s intention of the summits. I will then support my main arguments through the speeches and actions Kim made that emphasize their need and willingness for economic growth. Then, I will talk about the UN sanctions on North Korea and give support how they are harming North Korea’s economy. These would explain why North Korea is dedicated to cooperating and negotiating with other nations such as South Korea and the U.S. for economic interdependence and the implications these summits might bring to East Asian International Relations in the views of different key nations.
The social constructivist view is based on a completely different assumption from realism and liberalism. They argue that the social factors are not given to us but rather made by us. Identities and interests are not inherently given to us but rather made by our interactions with the world and other actors. Therefore, these socially constructed norms can be unmade or transformed. The biggest limitation in arguing for constructivism is that we are unsure what changed Kim Jong Un’s identity. Because North Korea is a relatively isolated country, there are not many interactions between states. The actions it has been presenting to South Korea has always been threatening with its nuclear tests and there is no incident for such a sudden behavioral change of Kim Jong Un. Because the assumption itself is not clearly verifiable in the context of North Korea, the whole argument in the constructivist view lacks credibility.
On the other hand, in realism, state behavior is explained in the condition of international anarchy. States act according to their self-interest, which is power maximization, to ensure survival or achieve hegemon. Mearsheimer categorizes realism into two types, defensive realists and offensive realists. Defensive realists are mostly interested in survival and seek security at the basic level. Security dilemma occurs because as to secure ourselves, we built an army, but this is seen as a threat to others, leading to a competition of security. On the other hand, offensive realists describe violence not as a self-defense for survival but rather as an aggressive impulse of human nature. Their main goal is to have dominance over the world, basically hegemony. In this case, security dilemma does not occur because states are considered as revisionist states. The Bedrock assumptions are the common assumptions to argue for realist view. They are very similar to liberalism as they both assume that states are sovereign, states are the central actors, and that we live in an anarchic world. However, they end in different points in that while realists argue that states fight one another for more power and seek security, liberalism argue that peace is possible by the cooperation of states and through international institutions.
A major weakness with the realist approach is that first, North Korea has always aimed for power through military power. However, if this is the case, then there should have been clear military actions made by North Korea. North Korea has always threatened other nations with its nuclear weapons, but it never fought for invasion and absolute control. Therefore, we cannot merely assume power and survival as the determinant for the recent inter-Korean summit and the talk with U.S.A. Moreover, North Korea requests more than just a guarantee of safety as an exchange for denuclearization. Kim has asked for economic assistance and aid in his New Year’s speech as well as in the talks with other nations. Therefore, realist view only partially recognizes the determinant of these summits.
In the liberalist view, states are the main actors in the international system and they make the key decision to war and peace. Unlike realism, liberalism argues that military power is not the only form of power. Instead, there is also economic and social power that matter, and they may be more effective than exercising military power, especially in the case of North Korea in the inter-Korean summit. Instead of fear, organizations such as institutions and international organizations allow wider and deeper strategic interactions between states and to build trust among each other. In the recent institutional setting, power and survival still matter but they also seek to maximize their opportunities for economic growth.
Economic interdependence within liberalism grasps the main determinant of the recent summit. Interdependence explains the different ways in which transnational actors become more dependent on each other, which in this paper would be through economic means. States have incentives to cooperate and manage interdependence, resolving disputes in a peaceful way without war. Therefore, interdependent countries are less likely to go into war and instead, economic, social issues become higher priorities on the international agenda. A key point to notice is that the effects of interdependence are caused not by current trade levels, but by expectations about future trading opportunities. In the case of North Korea, it is heavily isolated from the international economy except for China. And with China’s call for stronger sanctions, North Korea hopes to create new trading opportunities with other nations and through these trades, become interdependent. It hopes to achieve economic growth, not isolated from the world economy but now to take part with the guarantee of security from the U.S. army in South Korea.
Therefore, I argue that Kim Jong Un’s biggest reason and intention behind his optimistic attitude in the inter-Korean summit and to the U.S. talks is to achieve the goal of economic interdependence and overall economic growth in his country. Kim is willing to bargain away nuclear arsenal for economic aid, mainly to release the international sanctions and to develop North Korea’s economy as to ensure long-term survival. Long-term survival cannot be ensured just without economic development and because North Korea is experiencing the implications of international sanctions, it is willing to negotiate. It realizes that the economic sanctions are starting to bite their economy. Therefore, it wishes that sanctions will be let go to keep its regime stable and for economic growth.
Economic Growth as Kim’s Main Goal
Kim has continuously claimed in public speeches that their main goal is economic growth. He stated his goal since the first public speech as a leader of North Korea and has continuously implemented reforms to achieve this goal. In his first public speech in 2012, he announced that he would not let people “tighten their belts again” and promised to raise the living standards of its people. And in March 2013, he implemented the Byungjin Policy, which was a decisive shift from a focus on nuclear weapons to a focus on economy. Kim declares that their mission of nuclear weapons has achieved “great victory” (Carlin), no longer finding the need to test the long-range missiles or atomic bombs. Therefore, Kim adopts this policy to replace the military-first policy to market-oriented reforms, declaring it as a “new strategic line” (Carlin) to focus on the natural resources in North Korea to rebuild its economy after extreme famine. This change of state’s concentration indicates that economic development was one of its primary goals.
After the implementation of the byungjin policy, North Korea attempted to pursue economic strategy focusing on enhancing the effectiveness of economic engagement. It strengthened economic reform measures by enhancing autonomy in industries starting from August 15, 2013. It was the first time actual new economic reforms were made in North Korea. They specifically called it the “socialist enterprise management methods” (qtd. in Snyder) where all enterprises carry out management activities independently with initiative even though this may suggest a departure from central planning and devolution of decision-making authority to firms.
At the party congress in May 2016, Kim laid out long-term goals and policies for the economy. He said that the byungjin policy is not a temporary step but a permanent strategy. Because this can only be achieved if the nation is secure, through confirmation of security with the U.S., Kim aims for economic growth. Kim Jong Un is willing to dismantle his nuclear arsenal for the right incentives including economic aid, security guarantees from the US, peace treaty, different measures all needed to rebuild North’s economy (Choe). He also announced plans to open special economic zones in North Korea, where he hopes to attract foreign investors, but this only being possible of international sanctions against NK are eased. Therefore, his continuous reforms for his ultimate goal of economic growth through economic interdependence is clearly presented.
In the recent year of 2018, Kim continues with his goal of economic development. In the New Year’s speech, Kim directly mentions that he not only promises his people regime security but also economic development. From this speech, we can hint a few things. First of all, Kim seems to worry about the domestic problems while his predecessors concentrated more on international relations. Kim begins to pay attention to the public services in North Korea such as their health system and infrastructure improvements even though there still remains a lot of problems. As Kim pledges to create an “international environment favorable to the socialist economic construction” (Song), he is highly determined to participate and take actions in the inter-Korean summit and forthcoming summit with the United States for its economic development through sanctions relief and foreign investments. But in order to achieve economic growth, North Korea cannot rely on China only, especially after the change in China’s decision with the sanctions. Therefore, they need the world’s help.
UN Security Council Sanctions on North Korea
In response to the North Korean nuclear test conducted on 2nd September 2017, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2375, further strengthening of UN sanctions on North Korea on September 11, 2017 (Haggard). The main objective was to condemn North Korean violations and to demand that North Korea give up their nuclear and ballistic missile programs. The sanctions specifically targeted the North Korean major trades, which would heavily affect their economy. For example, they put restrictions on all refined petroleum products in terms of allowing specific amount with specific preconditions and fully banned “all condensates and natural gas liquids to DPRK” (United Nations). In addition, they banned textiles export by the DPRK, which provides DPRK with nearly $800 million each year. They also banned work authorizations for DPRK nationals, only allowing DPRK nationals with written contracts prior to the adoption of this resolution to maintain in the workplace. The overseas workers previously earned wages that financed North Korea’s regime with over $500 each year. Directly targeting the major economic trade in North Korea, the UNSC urges North Korea to stop with its nuclear programs (United Nations).
Sanctions’ Effect on North Korea’s Economy
These sanctions have been supported by numerous states including the U.S., Republic of Korea, Japan, and even China. Japan was very supportive of the strengthening sanctions of the UNSC, urging other member states to cut off humanitarian aid. Mark Field, the British minister of state for Asia, stated, “we will use whatever means we have to make clear our displeasure at the reckless provocations from Kim Jong Un,” publicly announcing that they will no longer send assistance to North Korea to the South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency (Fifield). Most importantly, China traditionally supported ally with North Korea against international pressure but they changed their position after the sixth nuclear test of North Korea on September 3rd in Japan (Deutsche Welle).
China’s decision heavily harmed the North Korean economy because North Korea’s economy is primarily dependent on China. Statistical data illustrates the sanctions’ effect on North Korea. China, as the sole biggest trading partner of North Korea, held around 91.9% of North Korea’s imports and 86.3% of its exports. But since the end of 2017, there has been a sharp drop in trade with North Korea. Their overall trade fell 50.6% on December 2017 as compared to December 2016. Their imports fell by 81.6% to $54.34 million according to Reuters records and exports fell by 23.4% to $260 million (Tan). Their overall trade dropped even further in 2018 during the first two months. Recent records show that Beijing reduced its total imports from North Korea in first two months in 2018 by 78.5% and 86.1%. It exports to NK also dropped by 33% and 34% in the two recent months (“China Apply Own Maximum Pressure Policy on Pyongyang”). As the major trading partner, China’s sanctions on North Korea dramatically reduced its overall trade. As a result, in North Korea’s Deficit with China ballooned starting the year 2018, as seen in graph 1. Moreover, sanctions led countries including China to send North Korean workers back to their home, cutting another key source of hard currency for the North Korean government. With Beijing’s change in approach and support to the increase in UN sanctions on North Korean commercial trade, North Korea’s economy is in danger.
Another evidence that illustrates how international sanctions on North Korea is starting to bite its economy is the example of North Korea’s Chongsu chemical plant. This was initially shut down for 20 years and renovated for reoperation recently in 2016. However, it shut down again due to the international sanctions on North Korea. Because of the sanctions, chemicals were not allowed to be sent to North Korea. Therefore, these chemical plants could obtain the necessary materials and could not produce batteries. I directly quote, “in order to operate factories in NK, raw materials and electricity must be guaranteed” (Kim), meaning that their disconnected trade of raw materials halted their factories from working and providing services for its people.
Graph 1. North Korea’s Deficit with China (Brown)
Because of the heavy limit in exports and imports to North Korea by international sanctions, its economy is currently heavily dependent on smuggling and limited market activities. Since late January in 2018, Japanese military planes sighted four instances of North Korean ships appearing to take on shipments from other vessels in international waters. Although North Korea is still secretly trading, they will soon face its limit and run out of hard currency. The betrayal of China was viewed as a threat to its fall of regime. Therefore, it not only attempts to relieve its sanctions but also to create new economic relationships and interdependence with other states after the peaceful summits to reduce its holy reliance on China.
Why the U.S. Talk?
The United States takes an important role in the UN sanctions. In early 2016, during Obama rule, the Congress granted President Obama the authority to impose any secondary sanctions against entities in violation of the existing restraints. In September 2017, Trump also signed a sweeping executive order that allows him to impose such sanctions on any entity doing commercial business with North Korea. The companies who trade with North Korea in violation of sanctions could face exclusion from the U.S. financial markets or even asset freezes. Therefore, these companies and nations face direct threat from the U.S. as it is one of the strongest trading partners. One who would face a real threat of security by the U.S. is China. Recently, however, North Korea’s request to have a summit with the U.S. changed its attitude.
The summit with the United States is very important to North Korea because they fear the U.S. militarily. Kim asks for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the international community. Furthermore, he asks for a guarantee of his regime’s security in replacement of denuclearization by having 30,000 US troops removed from South Korea. To show its commitment to denuclearization, North Korea has currently stopped its missile and nuclear tests and also blew up one of their nuclear test sites. The direct summit with the United States may lead to a relief of sanctions and more international financial support. United States is currently an obstacle to funding from international financial institutions including World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank, etc because of their high investments. Therefore, North Korea may not request money from the United States but rather from these financial institutions.
Implications of the Summits on East Asian Relations
North and South Korea share the common goal for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula through complete denuclearization. Korean war ended in an armistice, leading two Koreas technically at war. Therefore, they could clash any time and tensions continued to escalate. The 2018 inter-Korean summit discusses a complete end to the Korean war armistice and signing of peace treaty. Previous attempts were made to have North Korea denuclearize with economic incentives. South Korea provided huge investments to help improve the North, but agreements collapsed as the North persisted in developing nuclear weapons. Therefore, President Moon argues that such assistance and aids will only be provided to North Korea only after they show progress towards denuclearization and when sanctions are lifted. They hope for military conflicts to come to an end and for peaceful interactions to occur.
Moreover, analysts predict that this peace treaty will have a tremendous effect on the South Korean economy. During the armistice period, local stocks were undervalued due to the geopolitical risks. Therefore, the final peace treaty will influence local financial markets positively as it highlights the potential of investing in South Korea. This will further affect North Korea, bringing a win-win solution as the establishment of peace regime allows future facilitation of massive development projects in North Korea as well (KBS World Radio). But South Korea’s main goal in the Inter-Korean summit is primarily to end the military conflict and to come to peace terms with North Korea.
United States of America
On June 12, 2018, North Korea and the United States finally sat down together and had a bilateral meeting. In the summit, the United States insisted on Complete, Verifiable, Irreversible Denuclearization (CVID), a phrase specifically mentioned throughout the summit for complete denuclearization of the North. Sectary of State Mike Pompeo stressed the CVID and argued that only after North Korea undertakes the CVID will they guarantee security (???). They must be able to explicitly “verify” their denuclearization in order for the United States to fully trust North Korea with their negotiation with nuclear weapons.
As a great power, North Korea recognizes its influence and how their relationship with the United States could help open up opportunities for economic growth through sanctions relief, leading further to interdependence. Therefore, North Korea presented their strong will to talk to the States. As for the United States, they were initially doubtful of the true intentions of North Korea. But, with the talks with North Korea, they strongly support the denuclearization and inter-Korean summit. South Korea plays a large role in their summit with North Korea. South Korea and the United States have been strong allies since the Korean war and the US has been helping secure South Korea with its troops. With the recent inter-Korean summit, Trump shows his support for Moon’s position to help end the Korean war. Therefore, South Korea’s position as a mediator could have been an incentive for Trump to talk to Kim Jong Un. As a nation taking a direct role in the North and South armistice, the United States aims to support the inter-Korean summit and to preserve stability within East Asia.
China has been the only nation North Korea could rely on. Therefore, their relationships are close. As China is hoping to maintain their influence on North Korea, they will continue to preserve this relationship through economic and political means. First of all, China will prioritize North Korea’s security even after denuclearization to prevent regime collapse because this would bring refugees to China, which they would not be able to handle. More importantly, China is willing to provide China with its economic assistance and aids. President Xi already cut a deal with China, resuming some economic relations. However, this is only possible if sanctions are relaxed and if China opens up its economic door more. In order for this to proceed, North Korea must talk with the United States. Therefore, before the summit with the US, North Korea met with Xi Jin Ping in Beijing, which signals North Korea’s full alliance with China. They highly support the direct talk between the United States and China because they repeatedly called for such direct dialogue. Chinese President Xi Jin Ping directly told Trump that he hoped that US and NK would start contact and dialogue to strive for positive results regarding denuclearization and stable Korean peninsula. Although China supports a nuclear-free peninsula, they do not want reunification because they are afraid that if North and South were to unify, the new state could end up under the U.S. influence (Chandran and Tan). In conclusion, it seems clear that China will continue to support North Korea because of their relationship from the past.
Out of the members of the Six-Party talks for North Korean nuclear weapon issues, Japan is the only member excluded from having direct summit talks with North Korea. Despite Abe expressing strong willingness to hold direct talks with North Korea, North Korea has given no response (Chandran, “Trump-Kim meeting may leave out Japan”). Up until today, they take no position in talking with North Korea.
Japan is concerned about the summits with North Korea because it greatly affects their security position. They worry that Trump, who has close relationship with the Japanese leader Abe, will make deals with North Korea that does not suit with Japan’s security concerns. North Korea’s long-distance missiles and nuclear weapons are discussed in the summits, but none mention explicitly on the shorter-range missiles. Japan is within the range of 200~300 North Korean No Dong Missiles, and so they are heavily worried that the United States might not cut a deal on this issue for them. Because they might be the first to get hit, if short-distance missiles are not denuclearized as well, they need a change of security strategy (Kato). Japan wishes to be included in the multilateral talks on the North Korean missile issue, as well as direct talks with North Korea, but as for now, they see the Trump-Kim meeting as a last chance to ask for their state’s interests to be heard and to come to a consensus on. Another issue Japan wishes to raise is regarding the nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s still being held in North Korea (Atwood and Farhi). Trump asserted that he will mention this issue during the North Korean-United States Summit but North Korea refuses to have a talk with Japan. They previously insisted that the abduction issue had been settled.
Overall, Japan feels insecure about discussions not about the denuclearization shorter-range missiles because these missiles are their main threat to security. As for now, it seems difficult for Japan to oppose North Korea because it would bring further instability within East Asia. Their strong disagreement with North Korea might put Trump in an uncomfortable position, harming their relationship. Therefore, I think as for now, Japan has not much of a choice but to maintain their close relationship with Trump and to support with North Korea’s commitment with the outside world.
In conclusion, the inter-Korean summit and the talks with Trump are largely motivated by Kim’s goal of economic growth. North Korea has always needed and asked for economic assistance to other nations. For example, during the 2003-2009 six party talks, North Korea asked for an exchange for fuel oil, aid, or release of frozen funds. Even today, North Korea’s economy is under heavy sanctions and is facing economic problems. They have lost a vast percentage of trade imports and exports, directly affecting the people’s living standards and factories shutting down. Therefore, North Korea is in desperate help from other states for resources. Through these summits, North Korea attempts to guarantee regime survival and safety not through military means but through economic means, hoping to create economic interdependence with other states.
One weakness in my argument would be that the statistical data might be inaccurate because data in North Korea are often not transparent. They control all data, even when given to United Nations statistics division responsible for GDP of all UN member states. However, there are still strong signs of Kim arguing for economic interdependence.
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